The Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Past and Present

Author: Sergey Pakhomov

Part 1: Terminology, Chronology, and Early Stages of Development

The terms “Gurdjieff Movement” and “Gurdjieffism” are used here in their broadest sense, referring to the entirety of George Gurdjieff’s (1866–1949) ideas and practices as well as to all tendencies, schools, centers, and individuals employing his ideas and practices to a certain (if only insignificant) degree. “Gurdjieffism” as a term is typologically comparable to established notions, such as “Theosophy,” “Anthroposophy,” “Wicca,” “Freemasonry,” etc. At the same time, I distinguish (with all necessary reservations) between “pure” Gurdjieffism, which can be traced back to Gurdjieff himself and strictly follows his teaching (and partially the teaching of Pyotr Ouspensky), and “mixed” Gurdjieffism, which holds Gurdjieff in high esteem, yet differs significantly from the very core of his teaching, drawing from the most diverse ideas and practices.

Gurdjieffism represents a notable phenomenon of contemporary esotericism and an essential part of both the contemporary New Age culture and the large-scale Human Potential Movement. Its development in Russia can be divided into four periods: Its initial period spans the time from Gurdjieff’s arrival in Moscow up to the repression of occult organizations in the early Soviet period of the 1930s. This stage, especially its early beginnings, is characterized by the impulse set by Gurdjieff himself and taken up by his followers. The second period, covering the 1960s to 1980s, is connected to the activities of the esoteric and intellectual Soviet underground and semi-underground (e. g., the Iuzhinskii Circle) and to its representatives’ acquaintance with the teaching through books instead of personal relations to Gurdjieff’s senior disciples. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the third and most fruitful period started to unfold, which can be considered the heyday of “pure” Gurdjieffism in Russia. It lasted approximately until 2010 and was followed by the fourth period, which continues to the present day. The specifics of each of these periods will be discussed in more detail below.

George Gurdjieff ©Полит.ру

Thus, the history of the Russian Gurdjieff Movement (a part of which coincides with the history of the international Gurdjieff Movement and specific currents inspired by the music composed by Gurdjieff, which will be discussed in the second part of this essay) began over a hundred years ago. It is important to note that the historical roots of global Gurdjieffism lie in Russia and go back to Gurdjieff’s arrival in Moscow (according to another version in St. Petersburg) from somewhere in the East, shortly before World War I. However, the exact year of his arrival in Russia remains unknown, though it must have been sometime between 1910 and 1913 (Rovner 2019, 436).

When Gurdjieff first came to Russia, he was little noticed in the circles of the wealthy local intelligentsia he sought to profit from. A movement of followers came into being only after Gurdjieff’s encounter with the then-popular and successful journalist and occultist Pyotr Ouspensky (1878–1947) in Moscow in spring 1915. Within the following two years, the groups of Gurdjieff’s disciples in the capital were remarkably active, despite the adverse conditions brought about by war and revolution. However, a center for human development, which Gurdjieff had dreamed of, was opened neither in Moscow nor in St. Petersburg.

In the turbulent aftermath of the October Revolution, Gurdjieff and his disciples started traveling around – all of them with the goal of establishing such a center for human development. Although the description of this distressful odyssey, which took place mostly outside Russia, is beyond the scope of this essay, it must be noted that their travels contributed to the formation of a far-reaching network of groups and centers headed by either Gurdjieff himself or his disciples and located in various countries, including France (the main center), Great Britain, and the United States. This essay, however, focuses on the Soviet and post-Soviet expressions of Gurdjieffism, which have long been outside the mainstream Gurdjieff Movement.

The First Period the Beginning
Pyotr Ouspensky ©2021 «ФБ»

As already mentioned above, the first period was characterized by the personal acquaintance of Russian spiritual seekers with the “early” Gurdjieff, thus receiving firsthand information. In his book In Search of the Miraculous (1999), Pyotr Ouspensky thoroughly described how the Russian disciples got attracted to Gurdjieff’s teaching back then and what difficulties they had to face. The small number of disciples falls into two groups: One group followed their teacher, eventually settling in various Western countries. The other one stayed in revolutionary Russia and had to endure several ordeals. Some have managed to preserve the experience of working in these groups and to pass it on carefully through the decades. One of them was Fyodor P. Verevin (1901–1968). Still in his youth, he became part of Gurdjieff’s Moscow pre-war group, to which he had been introduced by his older comrade Vladimir A. Shmakov (1887–1929), who was to become a well-known esoteric philosopher and the author of The Sacred Book of Thoth (1916), The Law of Synarchy (1922), and Foundations of Pneumatology (1922). Even after his teacher’s departure, Verevin did not lose his interest in Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. He stayed in Bolshevik Russia after the October Revolution and became involved with various occult associations, including the Rosicrucian Order (Manichaeans) and the Orionists, founded by Shmakov, which existed until 1933 (Nikitin 1999, 31-32), when they were destroyed by the authorities. The repressions had only little impact on the young mystic. He joined the Navy and graduated from the Moscow Institute of Transport Engineers. Fearing arrest and suspecting secret surveillance by the authorities, Verevin tried to lead the life of a decent Soviet citizen, though it can be assumed that he continued to practice some of Gurdjieff’s techniques since it was him who initiated the still-existing Gurdjieff group that is led today by Anatoly Arlashin.

Much remains unknown about the life of Gurdjieff’s scattered groups during the 1930s to 1950s. However, there are many indications to suggest that there have been individual meetings and conspiratorial practices.

The Second Period the Thaw

It was Verevin who unwittingly became the link between Gurdjieff and Moscow intellectuals deeply interested in the teaching of the Fourth Way. In the 1960s, when Verevin used to spend his time in Moscow’s libraries reading occult literature, he happened to meet Vladimir G. Stepanov (aka Master G, 1941–2011), one of the informal leaders of the Soviet esoteric underground back then. With him and his disciples (N. Korshakov, A. Kalitenko), Verevin shared his knowledge of the Fourth Way (Rovner 2019, 424), but he represented the exception rather than the rule. In the 1960s, people interested in the ideas of the Fourth Way no longer knew Gurdjieff personally, nor did they know his senior disciples or the transformation Gurdjieff’s ideas and practices had experienced since the 1920s to 1940s.

The 1960s were a time of prosperity for esoteric dissidence. The KGB’s control over society had slightly loosened; the persecution of dissidents, torture, and labor camps had become a thing of the past, though there were exceptions, of course. Even though the ideology of “scientific communism” continued to dominate as the one and only ‘truth,’ seekers of alternative worldviews could find plenty of opportunities to bypass the ideological state machinery, such as various literary salons (especially in the 1970s) and circles of creative intellectuals, in which all kinds of literature were read and discussed, including esoteric samizdat publications. Due to the negligence of the KGB, some books could also be found in the V. I. Lenin State Library, including the works of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.

It is important to note that Gurdjieffism was not the only and main ideological current among young intellectuals interested in esotericism – it was combined with other elements of an ideological ‘patchwork syncretism’ that represented above all a form of protest. Gurdjieffism was part of this Soviet counterculture.

The perhaps most vivid example of such syncretistic associations was the “Iuzhinskii Circle” headed by the writer Yurii Mamleev (1931–2015). Mamleev, as well as Evgenii Golovin, Geidar Dzhemal’, Vladimir Stepanov, Igor’ Dudinskii, Vladimir Kovenatskii, and other members of the group were to some extent influenced by Gurdjieff. They were attracted by Gurdjieff’s provocative, unsentimental, and harsh teaching manner, which they attempted to imitate. They also practiced Gurdjieff’s famous self-remembering and ‘Stop’ exercises, and were drawn to his idea of a mechanistic human nature. Nevertheless, due to the peculiarities of the Soviet esoteric underground, the lack of sources, and the isolation from the international Gurdjieff community, Gurdjieff’s ideas were to a large extent mixed with other esoteric philosophies. The members of the Iuzhinskii Circle saw no substantial differences between the teachings of Gurdjieff, Blavatsky, Steiner, the Roerichs, and René Guénon; to them, they all had been bearers of the same revelation. It did not bother them that the Roerichs could not stand Steiner or that Guénon had advised his pupils to “avoid Gurdjieff like the plague” (Stefanov 1996, 22). Still, despite their sympathy for Gurdjieff, Gurdjieffism was but one part of their ideology, which assigned far more importance to René Guénon. It is not by chance that the members of the Iuzhinskii Circle are considered to be the pioneers of Russian traditionalism.

The syncretism of Soviet esotericism, of which Gurdjieffism was part, in a sense echoed the syncretism of Gurdjieff’s teaching, which combined ideas from various fields, drawing upon Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity, Theosophy, and Western philosophy. Likewise, the Iuzhinskii Circle admitted all kinds of esotericism, mysticism, literary experiments, and artistic extravagance.

Even though there wasn’t any contact between Soviet and Western esotericists, some Soviets managed to establish relations with Gurdjieff’s foreign followers. According to Rovner, Master G (V. Stepanov) became involved with groups close to Idries Shah (1924–1996), who later invited Robert Graves to the Soviet Union (Rovner 2019, 425). This certainly does not look like a direct connection to the Western Gurdjieff Movement, however, considering the complete absence of exchange, even such indirect communication can be considered a breakthrough in some sense.

One of the Iuzhinskii Circle members, the artist and poet Vladimir Kovenatskii, was close to a small group headed by Boris Kerdimun and attended by Viktor Kholodkov (Olsufiev), the creator of the eponymous website that demonstrates both Kholodkov’s erudition in esoteric questions and the polemical nature of his statements, including his criticism of various followers of Gurdjieffism.

Arkadii B. Rovner ©Сайт Аркадия Ровнера

Nevertheless, there were people in those years who were able to integrate Gurdjieff’s teaching into their lives to a greater extent, such as the writer Arkadii B. Rovner (1940–2019), who had been introduced to the teachings of the Fourth Way in the 1960s. Rovner was probably the first of all esoteric dissidents to establish lasting contact with the Western Gurdjieff Movement. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1973, Rovner met Lord John Pentland, then president of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York. Through him, Rovner came into contact with the leaders of international Gurdjieffism, including Jeanne de Salzmann and her son Michel de Salzmann. Thus, Rovner unwittingly became the main “orthodox” follower of Gurdjieff with relations to the USSR. For ten years, Rovner traveled extensively around the world, acquiring knowledge until he finally took a break in the mid-1980s to reflect on what he had learned.

Rovner can be considered one of the first historians of the Gurdjieff Movement (i. e. of “pure” Gurdjieffism) in the USSR. In a number of texts, including his seminal work Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (2002), he recalled the period of the 1960s and 1970s, which was marked by the flourishing of Gurdjieffism within the Soviet underground. He stated – not without regret – that “the groups did not unite on the basis of Gurdjieff’s teachings neither did they develop in the direction set by him. They only assimilated, applied, and incorporated his teaching into the context of their time” (Rovner 2006).

When analyzing the Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet Russia, Rovner discerned three degrees to which Gurdjieffism had been embedded within the Soviet underground, which can be labeled “weak,” “medium,” and “strong.” Accordingly, he distinguished between three stages of its implementation, i. e. 1) the complete displacement of Gurdjieff’s teaching by other phenomena and processes, 2) the combination of Gurdjieffism with other systems, and 3) the effort to create authentic Gurdjieff groups (ibid.).

Anatolii R. Arlashin ©YouTube channel “Татьяна Орбу”

One of the veterans of the Russian Gurdjieff Movement is Anatolii R. Arlashin (born 1942). According to his autobiography, circulating the internet, he was born in Moscow region and studied at Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology from 1961 to 1967. Around the same time, he became interested in yoga, hypnosis, and extrasensory perception. He cooperated with the Department of Bioinformation of the Scientific and Technical Society for Radio Engineering, Electronics, and Communications, named after A. S. Popov, which during the late Soviet period had been a center for research on human potential. In 1965, Arlashin became involved with Verevin’s group and its work. At about the same time, he met a certain I. P. Abrosimov, who taught practical clairvoyance techniques allegedly going back to Grigorii Rasputin himself. In 1967, he met Rovner. After Verevin’s death in 1968, his group continued to work at the Popov Society until 1972. Ostensibly doing research on extrasensory perception, the group secretly studied the Fourth Way and practiced Gurdjieff’s techniques. In 1982, the group merged with another Gurdjieff group, somehow connected to the artist V. Kovenatskii, which soon fell apart due to internal quarrels. In 1983, Arlashin’s activities displeased the Moscow City Committee. To prevent persecution, he moved to Yalta, where he organized another Fourth Way group in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

In 1996 then, Arlashin founded the association Island of Consciousness, which later was renamed Center for Creative Thought. The center still exists and is run by Arlashin and his wife Tatiana Orbu. Their goal is to support the development of human consciousness with the help of the Fourth Way. For that purpose, they offer (1) an explanation of Gurdjieff’s teachings, (2) affirmative cross-references to other self-development teachings, 3) practical advice to people practicing the Fourth Way, and (4) a coordinating center for those interested in the Fourth Way (Arlashin, About us).

Arlashin is the author of the book The Fourth Way Upwards (see Arlashin’s The Fourth Way Upwards on Olsufiev’s website). This and several other works were uploaded on sufism.ru in the late 1990s and early 2000s “for the needs of the center.” In the book’s first appendix, Arlashin describes “the ten commandments of the wayfarer”:
1. Love God and the people: “this commandment reminds of the importance to be in a state of consciousness.”
2. Be always here and now: a commandment referring to a state of self-reflection.
3. Rejoice in the successes of others, for “emotional states can be transferred to others.”
4. Don’t be proud or greedy, for pride is “the manifestation of a false sense of self, and a person in this state is incapable of development,” while greed is “the attempt to fill with money the hole in the emotional center, created by the fear of powerlessness and helplessness.”
5. Embrace criticism, for “only in a group can a person hear and understand the truth about himself.”
6. Resist the unconsciousness within yourself: a commandement that invites the adept to challenge automatic behavior.
7. Don’t partake in slander and intrigues, for they can destroy any kind of collective.
8. Be authentic in your group, for group work allows the adept “to get help and benefit from it.”
9. Be trustworthy outside your group, i. e., do not reveal personal information shared openly in the group.
10. Abide by the commandments of Jesus Christ and Moses (these commandments, quoted in Old Slavonic style, are commented by the author in Appendices 2 and 3, respectively).

As can be seen, more than half of the commandments of this peculiar decalogue ( 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and partly 9) refer to behavior in a group, which is related to Gurdjieff’s idea that inner work is possible only within a collective context. For the individual, it is difficult to escape social and cosmic pressures. The first and last commandments indicate Gurdjieff’s classification of his teaching as “esoteric Christianity” (Ouspensky 1999, 138–139), while the commandments 2 and 6 echo the popular slogans of Neo-Advaita, Osho, and Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Curiously enough, Arlashin’s group pronounces the name “Gurdjieff” by stressing the first syllable since Gurdjieff supposedly presented himself this way to his Moscow disciples.

On YouTube, one can find many videos of Arlashin’s performances, during which he is always assisted by his wife. Only recently, they updated their website, adding new content. Arlashin’s group led to the formation of Mikhail Evtikhov’s group Creative Disclosure of Individuality with the poorly functioning website “Enneagram.” Evtikhov has been practicing self-development since 1993 and was taught by Arlashin from 1997 to 2014.

In order not to interrupt the narrative, I have presented the activities of Arlashin and his groups up to the present day, thus having reached the third period of Gurdjieffism in late and post-Soviet Russia, which will be presented in more detail in the second part of my blog post.

To be continued…

Translated by Romina Kaltenbach (née Heim)

References

{Arlashin} Арлашин, Анатолий Р. “Четвертый путь вверх [The Fourth Way Upwards].”Accessed November 11, 2021. http://www.olsufiev.com/4W/Gurdjieff-AGS.htm.

{Arlashin} Арлашин, Анатолий Р. “О нас [About us].” Accessed November 11, 2021: https://xn--80aaaki9bac4a9j.xn--p1ai/%D0%BE-%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%81/.

{Nikitin} Никитин, Андрей. Мистики, розенкрейцеры и тамплиеры в Советской России [Mystics, Rosicrucians, and Templars in Soviet Russia]. Москва: Интерграф Сервис, 1998.

{Ouspensky} Успенский, Петр. В поисках чудесного [In Search of the Miraculous]. Санкт-Петербург: ФАИР-ПРЕСС, 1999.

{Rovner} Ровнер, Аркадий Б. “Гурджиевское движение в России 1960-х и 1970-х – воспоминания и рефлексии участника [The Gurdjieff Movement in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s: Memoirs and Reflections of a Participant].” Accessed October 25, 2020. http://ariom.ru/forum/p357562.html, 2006.

{Rovner} Ровнер, Аркадий Б. Георгий Гурджиев и Петр Успенский [George Gurdjieff and Pyotr Ouspensky]. Москва: АСТ, 2019.

{Stefanov} Стефанов, Юрий. “Волшебная гора Рене Домаля [The Magic Mountain of René Daumal]”. In {Daumal} Домаль, Рене. Гора Аналог [Mount Analogue]. Пер. с франц. Т. Ворсановой, 7–33. Москва: Энигма, 1996.


Featured Image: “Gurdjieff movements”  ©gurdjieff-dances.com


Read this blog post in Russian.

Cite this article as: Sergey Pakhomov, “The Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Past and Present. PART 1: Terminology, Chronology, and Early Stages of Development”, in New Age in Russia, 22/11/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6120.


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